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Exploding rockets and asteroid findings: This year in space news

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

2023 has been a bumpy year for humans on Earth. But off the planet, we've been doing a little better as a species. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel has been tracking humanity's progress into the final frontier, and he joins me now to talk about it all. Hi there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So Geoff, it has been a year here on our home planet. So I want to start this conversation about as far away as we can go. I understand that there was some exciting asteroid news this year.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. It's been a bumper year for asteroid research. Japanese researchers found a building block of life called uracil on an asteroid. Another group found dust from distant stars sprinkled all over it. Asteroids are thought to be these frozen chunks from the earliest days of our solar system, so each discovery tells us a little bit more about how we got here. All of this was made possible by samples that were returned three years ago by a Japanese mission, which is why it's so exciting even more samples came back to Earth this fall. NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission landed in the desert in Utah. It's carrying a chunk of an asteroid called Bennu. The mission scooped up about a cupful back in 2020.

SUMMERS: I have never heard anyone say anything about a cupful of asteroid before, to be clear. What did we learn from it?

BRUMFIEL: Well, so far not much because researchers are still very carefully unpacking all the grit and rocks from the sample container. But ultimately, Bennu is believed to be an ancient asteroid, so it may have more clues about the formation of the solar system, the Earth and even us.

SUMMERS: OK, so let's go now from distant asteroids to our closest neighbor - the moon. Whole lot of stuff going on up there - Geoff, what can you tell us about it?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, the moon's been ignored for a long time, but there is a bit of a lunar renaissance underway. This year, Russia, India and a private company based out of Japan all launched robotic missions to the moon. Now, the bad news is that 2 out of 3 crashed. Both the Russian and Japanese private missions ended up slamming into the lunar surface at high speed, but India - India nailed it, and this was huge for India's space agency. They operate on a very tight budget, but they are mighty. With this mission, they became the fourth country after the U.S., the Soviet Union and China to land on the moon. Moreover, India landed farther south than any nation ever has, and that matters because the moon's south pole is believed to hold water ice. That ice is going to be critical for a future lunar colony, assuming humans can ever get there.

SUMMERS: Geoff, let's go to our final space story of the year. I think it is about a very big rocket - in fact, the launch of the biggest rocket ever built, right?

BRUMFIEL: Yep. This is Elon Musk's big rocket, which he showed off earlier this year. It's built by his company, SpaceX, and it's called Starship. It's this giant, stainless-steel beast of a machine. It's the tallest rocket ever built, with the most engines ever - 33 in the first stage alone. This thing is supposed to one day carry humans to the moon and Mars, but first it has to get off the planet. And on that front, I have to say it did so-so. Its first flight ended with an explosion. Its second flight also ended with an explosion but went better. The Starship separated from that first stage, and it flew off on its own for a bit before blowing up. But that's progress in the world of rockets.

SUMMERS: Geoff, what can we look forward to in 2024?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's going to be an exciting year, both for big rockets and for going to the moon. NASA has several robotic lunar missions scheduled to fly, and then the space agency's Artemis II mission is supposed to go towards the end of the year. If that isn't delayed, it's going to carry three astronauts on a trip around the moon. That's the first time that's happened since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s. And we should see a lot more of Starship. That rocket is critical not only to NASA's further plans for lunar exploration, but also for SpaceX. It needs it to launch its Starlink internet satellite system. And if they can't get it working, that could spell trouble for both the space agency and the company. So stay tuned.

SUMMERS: I will. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.